Utter!’s latest spoken word night was structured as a stroll through spoken word history, presented as a battle of the decades. Host Richard Tyrone Jones said that it was probably the strongest line-up Utter! had had – it was also one of the weirdest (I should point out, this is a good thing). Or rather, the line-up wasn’t necessarily odd – but the structure and intent were both a little different from your average poetry night.
Once the 1980s greatest hits compilation on the soundtrack had died down (subliminal manipulation for the contest ahead, perhaps? Which, given that the nineties were symbolically represented by readings from a Wolverhampton Express & Star anthology of poems written in response to the death of Princess Di – quite splendidly bad poems – might seem unfair), Jones began with a “Stop all the Clocks/Muppets Show” cento – “The Utter! Show Tonight” – which was better, if that’s possible, than it sounds. He then read his potted history of, cum manifesto for, spoken word, which can (and should) be read here. The slightly seminarish tone of this might explain what I mean about the structure of the night – it was certainly interesting, but it was an unexpected (by much of the audience, at any rate, who presumably hadn’t read it online) start to the night – the audience, primed to react, had little to react to, and seemed a little bemused.
This didn’t last long though, as the first four poets were presented, representing the current decade (Jones suggested we might call it the “teenies” – I don’t have a better suggestion), competing for the paid gig prize, a running feature at Utter! events – the winner by public vote being paid to feature in a future gig. Oddly, one of the more contentious of Jones’s opening remarks on the night, picking up on Niall O’Sullivan’s piece on “The Death of Performance Poetry” written earlier this year, was the contention that no-one in the trendy teenies called themselves “performance poets” any more, but rather, “spoken word artists”. A couple of the decade’s chosen champions seemed happy enough to be performance poets.
First up was Louise Fazackerley, whose poem remembering the unexpected appearance of a horse on her council estate, and the reaction of herself and the other children who lived there to this foreign creature, was beautifully observed, effortlessly transporting the audience with her. The only quibble that might be raised about her poems, is the very “spoken word” way in which she performed parts of them, slipping into the default aural language of performed poetry: the PAUSE – the CRESCENDO – the RISing RHYthm. After that we had Julie Mullen, whose inventive innuendos and deliberately dreadful rhymes in “I want to be taken up the Shard” (“by Bernard”) gave way to the exuberantly surreal “To Be a Poet”. The last poet on was Clare Ferguson-Walker, tipped straight from a six hour bus trip onto the stage to perform five minutes of poetry. She started by commenting, “so they’re not doing performance poetry in London anymore,” before giving us drugs. (“Drugs” was an amusing poem about an embarrassing teenage experience: her joke was “I’m doing ‘Drugs’ live on stage” – I don’t see why I can’t adapt it).
Preceding her was the eventual winner, Bang said the Gun co-host Laurie Bolger, whose chatty, digressive style flowed in and out of itself, providing a running commentary on the poem as it was happening. Many of the poets slid in and out of character like this, showing one of the benefits of seeing poetry live – the fact that it isa live event – there is room for the spontaneous, the faux-spontaneous, the rehearsed which sounds impromptu, and the on-the-spot interpolation which sounds like it was planned all along.
Following this, we slipped back in time to the 00s (I will not be made to call them “noughties”), represented by Niall O’Sullivan, host of Poetry Unplugged, and Mista Gee, host of Chill Pill. O’Sullivan started by explaining a little about what he meant by the difference between performance poetry and spoken word, avoiding lapsing too far into Open Universitese by illustrating the point with a poem (what he would call a “fake poem”) written for the occasion, discussing the changes that had occurred over the past decade, via the medium of a hypothetical pub brawl. He then gave us some poems from his first collection, you’re not singing anymore. This was the other unusual – and most interesting – feature of the night – poets representing eras were supposed to read workfrom that era. This lead to constant caveats along the lines of “did I really write that?” and “It was a different time.” O’Sullivan arranged a visual signal whenever he said anything which no longer applied – stepping to the side in an apologetic manner and looking askance at his younger self standing at the mic: “Come on in to the worker’s café / where every table’s a smoking table” (step to the side, apologetic smile); “full English breakfast £2.20”, step to the side, etc. This handy physical shorthand was adopted by several of the other poets later in the night.
It was a mildly harrowing reminder of how quickly things become history – attitudes, ideas, the circumstances we take for granted. Some more concrete examples were provided by Mista Gee, who, in between stand up bits and poems about love, sex and music, provided weird little windows into what is, after all, the very recent past – a pre-Credit Crunch poem about the Edmonton Ikea riot seemed oddly prescient of everything that’s happened since; his first poem of the night, about the 2003 anti-war march, had the odd feeling of being both living poetry and a strange sort of historical document at once.
After this, following Jones’s recital one of the execrable Diana poems, came Francesca Beard, off of the nineties. She seemed more embarrassed about revisiting her work – which is appropriate for the nineties, I suppose: not quite far enough back to be recognisably history, foreign and half-cool like the eighties, but still identifiably not the way we live now, the nineties is currently tripping over the threshold of history in the ungainly manner every era has to at some point. However, despite picking what she called the “worst” of her poems from back then – indeed, partly because of this – Beard’s poems had the virtue (for audience members of my age, at least) of feeling like teenage diary entries, at once mortifying and redolent of a particular time. Her mention of One-2-One phone adverts was like a madeleine to me. Pity my generation. But it was not just the set-dressing, the era-identifiable brandnames and concerns, but the whole style and tone of her poems that presented the audience with a very different world. She prefaced one of her poems by saying “you have to do it in the voice” – and the voice, and stance, were different. The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there. And they speak funny too.
Finally we arrived at the eighties. The eighties are now regarded with a certain amount of nostalgia – by the two groups of people who are always apt to get nostalgic: people who never experienced the era longed for, and people who are now at the age when nostalgia is as unavoidable as prostate exams. For people of my age, for whom the eighties are a dimly remembered blight on our childhood, they are more an object of morbid fascination than nostalgia. However, Tim Wells and Porky the Poet (latterly known as Phill Jupitus) did conjure up some desire to return to the days of Ranting.
Unlike the other poets, they came on as a pair, and the atmosphere changed slightly, from the feeling of attending a performance, to that of being in the company of two old friends having a laugh. This doesn’t mean the gig slowed down – if anything, due to the high volume nature of eighties stand-up poetry, it became more frenetic. Tim Wells has recently been compiling an internet archive of documents, videos, essays and interviews from and about the era, called Stand Up and Spit – hopefully in preparation for some kind of book or programme (if not [Partridge voice]: “Idea for a book…”). I don’t know if the impetus for this gig, and the way it was organised came from him (the gig is part of Utter!’s tenth anniversary celebrations – both Jones and Wells have Arts Council funding for their current projects), but this archive served him well here. The two poets, between good-naturedly taking the piss out of each other and their erstwhile colleagues, read from their own work and that of other eighties ranters, including Seething Wells, Attila the Stockbroker, Little Brother and Mark Jones (later Mark Lamarr), whilst filling in the historical context of the movement – where the gigs happened, how the fanzines and books got out, etc.: all adding up to an argument (without ever explicitly being so) for why ranting poetry was necessary.
The obvious thing to say about the eighties’ poetry – and perhaps this explains the nostalgia – is that it was bloody-mindedly political. Richard Tyrone Jones suggested at the end of the night that the lesson we could take from that part of the show was that we could do with more of this (and, for what it’s worth, the eighties did win the battle of the decades by audience vote). And possibly he’s right: do we need new Ranters? Tim Wells continually made parallels between the subjects of those poems, and circumstances now – certainly there’s little obvious reason why poetry of a similar sort could not be made. Wells and Porky ended with poems composed “in the ranting style”, which worked really well, proving that the best ranting poetry was not and is not reliant for its effect only on volume or pace of delivery, but on poetic skill – so, again, the problem is not that the style cannot work now. The question, therefore, is why don’t we have any ranters today?
Well, there are poets writing and performing political verse out there. The night’s representatives of 2014 commented on social issues – Louise Fazackerley’s poems were about class, prejudice, the rat-race; Laurie Bolger’s poem was about gentrification – comparing wanky Shoreditch cocktail-holes with “proper locals” like the night’s venue, The Amersham Arms. But the comments seemed more sidelong – more sarcastic than caustic, slightly embarrassed by their own politics; even the new poems Tim Wells performed on the night were more (relatively) subtle social comment than up-front calls to revolution – his poem on middle class people in the laundrette was a clever skit on the credit crunch and gentrification but stops a little short of class war.
Maybe the current urge to historicise and collate the past of spoken word into a coherent, or at least contiguous, whole is also an urge to set out a political position – an act of self-definition attempting to give spoken word a shared history and therefore an idea of what it stands for, and what it can stand for in the future. Whatever – it makes for a bloody good night out.